KNOWN as “The Train” (“’Cos I could go through anything in my path when I was on the right path”), 1990s’ heavyweight Lionel Butler was a fearsome puncher who, at just 5’11”, became a genuine threat during his short but memorable prime. The man from New Orleans, who learned to box whilst in prison, hooked up with Joe Goossen in 1991 and went on a 17-fight win streak.
The early pro career losses to Phil Jackson, Riddick Bowe, Cleveland Woods and other fighters now behind him, Butler showed the world what he could do. It all went well, until, Butler says, he signed with Don King.
Here, 51 year old Butler, 32-17-1(25) tells all to Boxing News:
Q: You had just three amateur fights?
Lionel Butler: “Yes, well, I was in prison at the time, having those fights there, so I guess you couldn’t even call them proper fights. Not even proper amateur fights – and two of them were against the same guy. But I was at least learning a little and on my way [to being a fighter].”
Q: Upon going pro, you were thrown in deep – Phil Jackson in your debut and then, just two weeks later, you fought Riddick Bowe in his debut!
L.B: “I know. No way was I ready. I was green as can be! But I just listened to whatever and any advice I got at that time, from my trainer, and he convinced me I had a chance in those fights – in any fight. But now, all these years later, looking back, of course I know I should never have been in there with a Bowe, who had, what, 200 amateur fights! I was way, way, way out of my depth.”
Q: The fight that perhaps turned it around for you came in July of 1990, a year-and-a-half after your debut – when you lost a split decision to Oliver McCall. Most people thought you won that one?
L.B: “I did beat McCall. By the slimmest margin, and being kindest to him, I’d say I won by two rounds. But no, I think I actually won every round! I even knocked him down, which he says all these years later, he was never knocked down. But that fight, it was his team, it was [on] his promotion. But he knows I beat him.”
Q: Then you hooked up with trainer Joe Goossen, in 1991?
L.B: “Yeah, in L.A. Dan Goossen and Joe they turned my career around. I went with them, got looked after, had good people around me, and I reeled off, I think, 15 fights without a loss [actually 17 bouts without a loss]. I always knew I could do it, and I never, ever turned down any fight. I knew I was small for a heavyweight, but I looked at guys who were taller, with longer arms, and I knew if I got on the inside, I could work them over and not get hit in return. Now, if they kept me on the outside, it was a different story [laughs]. But Goossen getting me to where I was going; it’s 50/50 [who should get the credit]. He got me at the right time, where I was serious and was training hard and ready to go places, but his skill as a trainer really helped me, no doubt.”
Q: The KO you scored over Tony Tubbs, a one-round win in August of 1992, really got you noticed.
L.B: “Yeah. I knew I was in shape for that fight, that I would win the fight. My left hook, that took Tubbs out, that was my favourite punch! For that fight, for the first ever time, I was in both mental shape and in physical shape. If you don’t have both, if you don’t have the two going hand in hand, it’s almost impossible as a boxer. Boxing, they say, is almost 90-percent mental. I agree on that. I had matured, was serious about training and I had the mental ability to properly train and get ready for a big fight now.”
Q: Top names began to avoid you at this stage?
L.B: “Yes, they did. Guys like Ray Mercer, Alex Stewart; quite a few guys. I knocked out some real good fighters and now no-one wanted anything much to do with me!”
Q: You then signed with Don King, and got that big fight with Lennox Lewis in May of 1995 (being stopped in the fifth-round). What went wrong?
L.B: “I still regret that today, going with Don King. That fight [with Lewis] was the biggest of my career, and he [King] basically left me on my own in a hotel in Reno. I wasn’t in shape for that fight – again, not mentally, and that made me out of shape physically. I was demoralised before that fight… I got just $180,000. I had slept with my wife just two days before the fight, and things like that just should not happen before any fight. If I’d been properly prepared, I believe I’d have beaten Lennox – by KO.”
Q: Was Lewis the best you ever fought, the biggest puncher?
L.B: [laughing] No way! Razor Ruddock, who I only sparred with, ahead of his first fight with Mike Tyson, in Las Vegas, man, he was a monster! He hit me the hardest, no doubt. I also sparred the Klitschkos, in Germany, but Razor, he was at his best, in his prime, when he hit me. Nobody ever hit me close [to as hard.]”
Q: Do you still follow the heavyweights?
L.B: “Of course. I watch Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder, [Joseph] Parker. I look at Wilder, and he is green! I think a lot of guys I fought on my way up, when I was green, they would have had a great chance of beating him. He’s off-balance, he’s wild, he’s green. But he does have great power. Joshua, he has better fundamentals, he’s more patient. But with Wilder, he showed against [Luis] Ortiz that he can take it, that he can take a real good, hard shot, and that can carry a heavyweight a long, long way. Joshua would really have to work him over to beat him. I have them all even right now. It’s a great fight. But today, they [fighters] have more luxury, as they can pick and choose their fights more. It was tougher in my day. If I could do it over again, I’d have good, trustworthy people around me right from the start. Today I want to be a trainer, to pass all my experience and knowledge on to others.”